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Canada Ontario firefighters’ battle over volunteer work heads to union trial

Many Ontario communities rely on part-timers to fight blazes, but union rules forbid firefighters from working part-time for other fire departments that are also part of their union.

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Four firefighters will be put on trial before their union peers on Monday, charged with misconduct for also joining volunteer fire departments in the small communities in which they live, as the struggle over "double-hatting" spreads through Ontario. The four could be expelled from the union, which could lead to them losing their jobs.

Many Ontario communities rely on part-timers to fight blazes, but union rules forbid firefighters from working part-time for other fire departments that are also part of their union. Ontario is one of two provinces – Newfoundland and Labrador is the other – that do not have legislation explicitly protecting a firefighter's right to volunteer.

In the past decade, hundreds of two-hat-wearing firefighters have been forced out of their part-time jobs assisting small fire departments in their hometowns. "Hundreds have been confronted by their union locals," Fred LeBlanc, district vice-president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), which is overseeing the union trial, said in an interview.

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Most leave their secondary positions when they understand why the union rule exists, Mr. LeBlanc said. "Ninety-nine per cent of them quit. Some people just need the education. Some people want to fight."

The four accused firefighters bring decades of experience, according to one of the accused, who did not want his name used. "Between the four of us, there's almost 100 years of experience that would be replaced with four guys off the street," he said. The four work full-time in Mississauga, and part-time in Halton Hills, a fast-growing exurban community northwest of Toronto with 59,000 residents, according to the 2011 census. It has just one full-time fire truck and crew, complemented by part-timers, the accused firefighter said.

"I don't believe the union should be able to dictate what I do when I'm not on shift. I can go be a roofer, I could be a drywaller; I can do anything I want but be a firefighter on my off shifts."

At the trial Monday, known as an internal trial board hearing, three union members chosen at random from the IAFF will consider misconduct allegations against the four accused firefighters. (Volunteers aren't required to respond to calls, and are paid for their time when they do.) The hearing is open only to members of the IAFF. A union member who brought the charges will present evidence and the four accused "two-hatters" will have an opportunity to present evidence in their own defence, Mr. LeBlanc said.

The accused firefighter who spoke to The Globe and Mail, a two-hatter since 2005, said he expects a decision Monday. If he's found guilty, possible penalties range from a reprimand to suspension from the union or even expulsion. And expulsion could mean loss of the full-time firefighting job. "In order to work for most fire departments, you have to be part of the union," he said.

A married father of two, he has not hired a lawyer for the hearing. "I'm not willing to spend any money on this. It's not in my budget. If I have to quit Georgetown [where he is a part-timer], I have to quit Georgetown. If my full-time job is on the line, I will have to quit."

Mr. LeBlanc said the union rule against taking part-time work with another local within the IAFF was adopted democratically by the union membership. "If they decide they want to violate it, they do so at their own risk of being charged. Because they're undervaluing their profession." Other trade unions have similar rules, he said.

Mandy Gould, a full-time firefighter in Brampton, is one of several part-timers in Caledon, also northwest of Toronto, who are fighting to keep double-hatting. She has been charged, but for now the charges are under review and no trial date is set.

She was inspired to become a firefighter and a volunteer by her double-hatter father, she said in an interview. "I saw my dad get up from our birthday dinners, Christmas, and drop everything to help a complete stranger. From a young age, I had in my mind, this was what I wanted to do for a living. I wanted to give back to the community that gave me a pretty awesome upbringing."

She said she was aware the union membership had voted for the rule, but "rules can be changed. … They don't tell me I can't play hockey or baseball or visit family in my off time so why should they tell me I can't serve my community in that time."

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